In 2016, 12.3 million travelers from out of state visited the Big Sky state, which has a population of just over 1 million.
That means there were 12 times as many tourists as locals here last year. And the main reason they’re coming here is because of the state’s mountains, rivers, lakes, streams, wildlife, national parks and other outdoor recreation opportunities.
According to Norma Nickerson, the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, those visitors created 52,630 jobs in the state and spent an estimated $3.49 billion in the state.
“The outdoors is our business,” Nickerson told the crowd during a recent Economic Outlook webinar presented by UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “If it weren’t for our mountains, lakes and streams – and access to those places – our way of life and the economy here would be different. Our economy wouldn’t be the same and there would be less people spending money here.”
Because it sits in the nexus between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, Missoula sees a fair amount of those travelers.
Last year, 4.2 million people visited Yellowstone, and 68 percent of them came through Montana, although the majority of the park is in Wyoming. Since 2012, Glacier’s visitation has increased 34 percent to almost 3 million people this past year.
Nickerson said that with the increased visitation, there are downsides like enormous added pressure on natural resources and the costs that come along with that. Yellowstone National Park found that since 2012, there has been a 96 percent increase in wildlife violation tickets issues in Yellowstone, along with a 61 percent increase in search and rescue calls, a 28 percent increase in domestic violence incidents and a 62 percent jump in driving under the influence citations.
“There are traffic jams and lines to the bathroom 20 people deep,” she said. “It has made it difficult for the parks administrators to follow their mandate of protecting resources while providing access to the public.”
All those extra visitors are taking an environmental toll as well. High-profile incidents, such as when people walked across a delicate thermal feature in Yellowstone last summer, are only the tip of the iceberg because they only came to light when video was posted to social media. There was a 177 percent increase of out-of-bounds camping citations in 2015.
“In Glacier, camping spots are filling up by 8 in the morning,” Nickerson said. “We have never seen that before. But despite all these crowds, surveys show that when people are asked about their satisfaction levels, they are happy. We’re a very adaptive species.”
She said more and more people are learning to get up earlier or visit parks in other seasons to avoid crowds.
Besides the two “crown jewels” of Yellowstone and Glacier, Montana also boasts many other lakes, streams and rivers that provide a lot of outdoor recreation jobs.
When the Yellowstone River was closed on August 19 of last year due to the deaths of thousands of Whitefish from a disease, Nickerson estimates that the local economy suffered an estimated impact of between $360,000 and $524,000. The incident underscores how the health of the natural environment is tied in with the health of local economies.
She said that “120 businesses reported that they had a negative impact (after the fish die-off). The majority were outfitters, guides and fly shops. It was across the board. The average net loss was $7,000 but it went up to $50,000 for some rafting companies. And when the employees are college kids trying to pay for school, it’s tough.”
The threat posed by invasive mussels to Montana’s waterways is more than an environmental concern, it’s also an economic one, Nickerson explained. This past November, they were found in the Tiber Reservoir and the Canyon Ferry Reservoir.
“Once you have mussels in a waterway, you won’t get rid of them,” she said. “It’s virtually impossible. When you look at maps of where they had been found before, it was bound to happen. What mussels do is clean the water, but they do such a good job that they get rid of everything else and it devastates the aquatic ecosystem.”
She said that a city in Michigan had to pay $325,000 to rid mussels from public drinking water pipes.
It is for those reasons and more, she said, that several different public surveys have found that roughly 68 percent of people in the Rocky Mountain states say they want the Trump administration to protect clean water, clean air and wildlife viewing opportunities.
“It may be different out East, but in the Rocky Mountain west there is a lot of concern and a lot of support for conservation,” she said.
The outlook for tourism is strong in Montana. She said that surveys of tourism-dependent businesses show that 57 percent of owners expect an increase in 2017, even though 2016 was a huge year. Overall, U.S. travel is expected to pick up 2 percent this year, although those surveys were done before the November elections.
Outdoor recreation is a $646 billion industry in the United States, and it generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending in Montana. She said that Gov. Steve Bullock has recognized the importance of the industry and has hired a public access specialist whose main role is to troubleshoot specific issues that prevent full access to public lands.
Dan Vermillion, the chairman of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, said that Montana has to grapple with protecting natural resources if the economic benefits of tourism are to continue to be reaped. Montanans also have to realize that while they may view tourists as a nuisance who overrun public lands here, they are a huge contributor to the economy.
“I’m in the tourism business, I own a fly shop in Livingston,” Vermillion said. “It allows us to employ the people we employ. People see tourism activity as additional people on public resources. It’s kind of like Montanans think Montana should be for Montanans only. But in a place like Livingston, there’s a broad understanding of how critical tourism is to our economy. In places like Billings or Great Falls, it’s a little less obvious. But there’s still thousands of visitors who are staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and stopping in gas stations on their way to Yellowstone or Glacier.”
Vermillion said the Fish and Wildlife Commission must rely on biologists and trained scientific professionals to manage wildlife in a sustainable way.
“We try to make sure we manage our resources so we have healthy rivers and healthy big game herds for wildlife watchers and hunters,” he said. “We are trying to figure out how to accommodate so many users on the landscape. Sometimes we have to limit certain uses. There is no right answer. It’s a tricky conversation, so we have to try to be as mindful as possible.”
Vermillion said he believes compromises can be found between those who want to preserve jobs in mining, forestry and drilling and those who want to preserve pristine environments for outdoor recreationists.
“If you look at a place like the Paradise Valley, there are two mining proposals on the northern border of Yellowstone Park,” he said. “Both incoming Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Sen. Jon Tester have made it pretty clear that’s not a place there should be an open pit gold mine. It jeopardizes the incredible value of the tourism resource there.”
However, Vermillion said the massive Stillwater Mine near the Boulder River is an example of a mine that has found a way to preserve the river.
“They’ve done a really good job of having a really strong mine that employs a lot of people and right downstream we’re fishing every day,” he said. “There’s a way to do it. You can accommodate both industries by acknowledging that we need minerals to operate the industrial society while also knowing that Montana’s best competitive advantage is the quality of our natural environment.”
Vermillion said that it is Montana’s great outdoors that allows companies to attract workers here.
“You look at the cities in Montana that are experiencing the most growth – Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell – the common denominator there is the quality of public lands right out their back door,” he said. “So when technology companies move to Bozeman, it is the quality of life that allows them to attract high quality talent.”
Vermillion is “profoundly opposed” to the sale or transfer of federally administered public lands to the states, where they would be more susceptible to being sold to private owners and locked up.
“A lot of those public rivers that we fish from, they come out of drainages where the upper reaches is all public land,” he said. “If those reaches are not properly managed, anything that happens really affects downstream. It’s super important to make sure the management of public lands takes into account the implications that can occur downstream.”